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Davis Mills Is NFL Draft's Unsung Future Starting QB for Teams Outside Top 10

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystApril 10, 2021

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills throws a pass against Southern California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

It feels inevitable that five quarterbacks will be selected in the top 10 in the upcoming NFL draft, which begins April 29 in Cleveland.

What will quarterback-starved franchises do if they don't land one of this year's elite signal-callers? 

Organizations sitting outside of the first half of Round 1 can turn their attention to Stanford's Davis Mills as a developmental prospect with legitimate starting potential.   

Mills remains somewhat of an unknown with only 11 starts in four seasons with the Cardinal. Lately, he generated first-round buzz in league circles, according to NFL Network's Peter Schrager

The possibility of Mills going in the first round or early on Day 2 is the result of two factors. 

First, the demand for quarterbacks is greater than ever. Two firsts could occur during the upcoming draft: Four quarterbacks could be selected with the first four picks, and five quarterbacks could come off the board among the initial 10 selections. 

Secondly, Mills' lack of polish and playing time is concerning, but he's been seen as top-end talent dating back to his days as a 5-star recruit. It's true. Scouts don't forget. Once a semblance of elite talent is identified, there will always be someone who thinks he and his staff can harness those gifts to get an effective player at the professional level. 

Talent is always tantalizing, hence why first-round picks tend to receive opportunity after opportunity to prove themselves even if they show little development. 

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In Mills' case, he never really had an opportunity to show who he could be at Stanford. Even so, teams toward the back end of the first round or those willing to move up into the late first or early second must weigh his potential with how much he could progress. 

John Raoux/Associated Press

It's safe to assume that the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers will have new quarterbacks once the first three picks are announced. The Atlanta Falcons, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Washington Football Team will be in play for the top options who aren't immediately chosen. 

From there, the Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and even the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be in the quarterback market. This latter tier will be vying to find someone capable of starting eventually. How aggressive each is will help determine how high Mills could go. 

Before reaching the draft, the 22-year-old had to build momentum.

Mills began behind K.J. Costello, who looked like a quality prospect until his career floundered because of injuries and a transfer to Mississippi State. Once Mills took the reins at Stanford, he showed promise. In 13 games over the 2019 and '20 campaigns, the 6'4", 225-pound quarterback completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards with an 18-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

When Mills is working in rhythm, he looks the part.

He stands tall in the pocket with a smooth release, spins the ball very well and shows positive anticipatory traits. He's also not afraid of pressure and doesn't get rattled with defenders around his legs or bearing down on him. According to Pro Football Focus, Mills ranked fifth among quarterbacks in this year's class—ahead of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and North Dakota State's Trey Lancewith a 63.8 grade when pressured. 

Speaking of Lance, an interesting comparison can be made between the projected top-10 selection and Mills. Obviously, the latter's lack of playing time is an issue, but Mills has 120 more dropbacks than Lance despite making six fewer starts, per PFF

Sam Hodde/Associated Press

Most of the deficiencies in Mills' game can be traced to his lack of experience. He'll get stuck on his first read and make poor decisions, particularly when he's trying to force a throw when nothing is there. The entire process needs to speed up for him since he's not overly athletic. To be clear, Mills displays functional mobility, but he does have a history of knee injuries and doesn't expand the offense as a runner. 

Understanding where Mills can improve is important because none of those mentioned are fatal flaws. 

Mostly, Stanford's system under head coach David Shaw is viewed as a pro-style approach that makes the transition to the NFL a little easier for quarterbacks.

"Somebody that really spreads the ball around and puts a lot of demand on their quarterback to make pre-snap reads and pre-snap checks," Mills told reporters of the type of team he'd best fit with. "I've been used to doing that at Stanford—just going out there and being successful is something I can do."

Because of missed opportunities throughout a coronavirus pandemic-shortened senior season, Mills seemingly knew he had to make a positive impression beyond what scouts saw on tape, and he worked out in front of scouts and general managers prior to one of the Senior Bowl practices, per NFL Draft Bible's Ric Serritella.

At that time, a West Coast scout informed Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline that Mills "is the hidden gem at the quarterback position in this year's draft" and expected the former Cardinal signal-caller to "continually climb draft boards as teams come to know him."

And that's what happened. He used the Senior Bowl as a launchpad despite not playing in the game. He continued to crush the process with a standout pro-day performance.  

Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Mills surprised with better-than-expected movement skills, posting with an unofficial 4.58-second 40-yard dash at his second pro day. More importantly, he threw well in his individual passing session despite rainfall

At worst, Mills is a Day 2 prospect and almost certainly won't make it out of the second round. Will a team be intrigued enough to pull the trigger before that point? 

Among the previously mentioned squads, Mills would immediately take a backseat to an established veteran (yes, this statement includes Chicago's Andy Dalton). He'd get valuable practice reps throughout the week to ease into his role as a future starter. 

For those in desperate need of a long-term plan at the game's most important position, Mills presents as much upside or more than any quarterback prospect expected to come off the board after this year's top 10 picksThat makes him worth the risk of making a move earlier than expected. 

                        

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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